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September Tomatoes

“September Tomatoes” by Karina Borowicz has become one of my touchstones this season.  
Preview of “September Tomatoes by Ka...- The Poetry Foundation”

Traditions are a way of measuring the passage of time – the day, the week, the year, the passing years – because they force us to tune into change.  Where were we during the last time we celebrated a season changing?  The last time we ate apples and honey?  Who were we with, how were we feeling?  Family traditions can be especially evocative in this way, because we feel them assemble in a kind of continuum over the course of our lives.  As adults, I feel like we live these traditions in a kind of double time: in the present, as a way to attend to the moment or the celebration in our current lives, and in our memories, as we remember our own experience as a child participating in them.  Celebrating each holiday or keeping each tradition in a way is the feeling of reliving each one that you’ve kept previously — and if it’s a cultural or family tradition, reliving all of those kept by the people before you.  It’s a burden and a joy to find a way to live traditions as an adult, when you have to keep them yourself, and make them for others.

“September Tomatoes” I think is about this feeling.  Borowicz goes from a very specific, personal meditation on the feeling of pulling up a tomato plant in her backyard, to

“My great grandmother sang with the girls of her village as the pulled the flax.  Songs so old and so tied to the season that the very sound seemed to turn the weather.”

IMG_5912The last stanza of the poem is about tradition, about how a community’s labor and its land are so in sync with the passage of time that cause and effect seem blurred. Here, tradition is about communality.  Whereas the growing of the tomato plants is such a labor of individual care —  “I’ve carefully cultivated” the tomato plants, she says — the “girls of the village” pull flax, and share songs together.  “Songs so old.”  I think the jarring relationship this stanza has with the previous three reflects how different abundance is when it’s individual rather than collective, when the requirements of the change in season come with culture and shared traditions.  I feel like there’s a plaintive tone in these lines which is in tune with the kind of searching I feel for shared practice.  Pulling up tomato plants feels cruel because it seems final, “destroying” the work of “all those months.”  Traditions, however, are cyclical; there was flax and song every year.  But not anymore.

There’s a richness in those first three stanzas, though, that’s not represented in the fourth.  It’s a sensory awareness – “whiskey stink,” a “burst of fruit flies” and “claws of tiny yellow blossoms.”  Awareness is something that I think is just as important as tradition when it comes to being a part of a place and its seasons, and I think it connects you to others who share the same sense for place and time. 

I picked up a chestnut at the same time as a woman I was walking alongside the other day. “I love how smooth they are,” she told me, “I pick one up and keep it in my pocket, and just roll it around in my fingers all day.  They remind me of growing up in England. Chestnuts say fall to me.”  Sensory awareness is very much grounded in the present moment but can also connect you to your past, like the smooth feel of chestnut under her chilly fingers.

What makes you feel like fall has come?  Chestnuts (and acorns! and mysterious seed pods hanging from unidentified trees!) say fall for me.  Mums on front porches.  When it starts to get dark during dinner.  Birds flocking in our backyard eating grass seeds.  A friend reminded me that there’s a shift in the air that says fall, too. And more tomatoes than we know what to do with.

So we shared our tomato abundance with our friends.  And we reflected individually about abundance that we have failed to share with others, abundance that we regret not taking advantage of.  This regret is part of the personal work of fall, a natural response to the experience of moving from abundance to austerity.  During the High Holy Days, after you throw your regrets in the water like we threw our seedpods, you are expected to make amends, especially with the people who you’ve affected, for this “missing the mark” (what I was taught “sin” is literally translated to in Hebrew).  This happens over the following ten days, and then you atone with a fast on Yom Kippur.  You begin with a bounty, with sweetness, then you reflect, you repair or ask forgiveness, you cleanse, and then you’re ready to start a new year.

Another thing. A “harvest” time like in the great great grandmother stanza is a time of work.  It took work to change from fat to lean, to take advantage of abundance so it does not go to waste.  Traditions can be traditions of labor.  I think too often I think of them only in terms of leisure.  Back to the recommendations.

Cultivating: Harvest

On the Autumnal Equinox, I put out a cutting board laden with apples and honey. I sliced an apple at its equator and left it open on the table, revealing the star of seeds. Apples and honey are a symbol of Rosh Hashanah, the first holiday of the Jewish High Holy Days and the marker of the Jewish New Year, but that core of seeds made me think of Persephone.  Seeds, the rhythms of the day and the year, the poetry and work of abundance and austerity — those are some of the things that this season means to me.

IMG_5907Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (Goddess of the land and earth), was just a girl, playing in the fields, when she was taken by her uncle Hades and brought to the underworld. While she shivered in the darkness, her mother roamed the earth, her grief shriveling crops and blackening seeds. Hades offered Persephone a pomegranate, a gesture of the summer that she had left behind aboveground. When Demeter found them, she negotiated for her daughter’s release. Hades demanded that Persephone return to him every year, one month for every pomegranate seed she had eaten. Seven seeds. When her daughter returned to the living, Demeter restored the fields and a time of warmth and growth followed. And then, when Hades came to take her back, Demeter’s grief once again turned the world to death, to follow her daughter. And so we have the seasons. Ripe fruits are the seeds of death, and a journey into darkness only brings us closer to the spring.

Persephone, for her part, never quite felt at home on the surface, in her mother’s world of abundance and nourishment. Part of her relished the damp austerity and the darkness beneath. It felt like relief, somehow.IMG_6102

Like all myths and traditions, this story contains the truth of what it feels like to slip from the fullness of summer into the stripped color of fall. And so on the equinox we shared apples and honey, and the overwhelming number of tomatoes that our garden has recently produced. We sang songs about purification and joy with hundreds of our neighbors at the Revels RiverSing, and then we walked along the Charles River, in the moonlight, and read a poem. I led a kind of hybrid tashlikh/equinox ritual: I had everyone bring a seed or seed pod to the gathering.  When we got to the river I asked, “When have you failed to share your abundance with the people you love? When have you allowed plenty to become overindulgence, waste, and guilt?” And when we’d reflected on the question, each of us, on our own time, threw our seeds into the river.

So I offer here some of my seasonal reflections, and some objects and stories that might help you with yours. As always, check my Pinterest board for more.

. Louise Glück’s Averno is a book of poems about Persephone. It’s a favorite of mine. I’ve felt the Greek myths creeping behind my thoughts many times in my life, since my grandmother read them aloud to me when I was a girl. Poetic interpretations are the best ones.

Here’s a stanza from “October,” which feels just right for this 80 degree day.

Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.

Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away –

You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice;
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened,
don’t ask it to respond again.

A day like a day in summer.
Exceptionally still. The long shadows of the maples
nearly mauve on the gravel paths.
And in the evening, warmth. Night like a night in summer.

It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.

Once more, the sun rises as it rose in summer;
bounty, balm after violence.
Balm after the leaves have changed, after the fields
have been harvested and turned.

Tell me this is the future,
I won’t believe you.
Tell me I’m living,
I won’t believe you.

. Another poem that’s really resonated with me this season was “September Tomatoes” by Karina Borowicz, a MA poet.  I posted my writing about this poem separately – I encourage you to sit with a poem, read it aloud, and see what the words, their rhythm, and their resonance in your life tell you!

.Take a listen to Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, which I first learned about on NPR. The meditations on rhythm, the body, and unison will remind you, I hope, of the rhythm of work in the Tomatoes poem, and of the kind of meditation and reflection that’s so important on Yom Kippur.

IMG_5692IMG_5704. Rhythm and physicality are two of the things I love about the craft of weaving. I’ve been making branch weavings lately, inspired by the women at 3191 Miles Apart (a wonderful project filled with the poetry of everyday life). The branches are from a willow tree near my house.   I actually have been weaving while listening to Music for Heart and Breath; they feel like natural companions.  You can make your own cardboard loom, like I did.

. Weaving is a deeply mindful practice, like many slow hand crafts. Adele Stafford is the weaver and thinker behind Voices of Industry, in San Francisco. She hand looms the most exquisite fabric from wool and cotton, and she is deeply engaged in the land that her materials come from. Take a look at the photo essays on her blog and the profiles of the farmers that she works with, who are committed to a slow, organic, mindful way of producing.poetry holds-01

. Whether poetry’s new for you or something you already love, I emphatically recommend to you the conversation between On Being’s Krista Tippett and poet Marie Howe, called, after Howe’s most recent book, “The Poetry of Ordinary Time” (http://www.onbeing.org/program/the-poetry-of-ordinary-time-with-marie-howe/5301) Not only does their conversation touch very much on these themes of the patient, meditative (even sacred) qualities of everyday tasks, but it’s the best discussion of poetry I’ve ever heard.  “There’s a silence at the center of a poem,” she said, that’s very difficult to sit with.  And so I turned it into a poem (at right)

. I started this post with the image of an apple. I might have had apples on the brain because of Rosh Hashanah, or I might have been thinking about them because I had recently heard Rowan Jacobsen talk about his new book Apples of Uncommon Character. It’s filled with great stories about heirloom apples and how they traveled around the country – they’re stories about local pride and historical accidents. And there are recipes! This might be a great gift for the apple/fall enthusiast in your life, or something that you bring out into your own kitchen every fall to reflect on this fruit’s role in our nation’s history. NPR did a great story about heirloom apples recently – they’re having a resurgence, like the heirloom cotton Adele Stafford weaves.

. Apples are actually part of this amazing plant family the rosaceae, which includes roses, crabapples, hawthorns, quinces, and even the wonderful medlar. So don’t limit yourself! Get inspired by hedgerow fruits of all kind. Make rosehip liqueur like a Scandinavian (PS that allotment gardening column is amazing), pick up a pear butter from June Taylor (who also makes some fantastic medlars preserved in brandy, available later in fall/winter – another California maker who just totally makes me swoony), or get fancy and order the totally incredible Sloe Sherry Liqueur from Demijohn in Scotland (also excellent: Somerset Pomona, an apple liqueur, and the Wild Bullace Liqueur).  Ciders are having a renaissance in the US today too – Carr’s Ciderhouse makes beautiful hard ciders and cider vinegars, and is a Martha Stewart American Made finalist, and Russell Orchards Dry Reserve is a natural on a holiday spread, and very low alcohol (a must for me and my low tolerance!).  I love it when ciders are funky and dry, in the English style.  Sadly, many traditional New England cider houses have been converted to wineries in recent years – so I feel strongly about encouraging cider, something that is delicious and well suited to producing high quality product in our region, when it’s being done well!

. Last weekend my husband and I went to the Topsfield Fair, the oldest agricultural fair in America.  It shares with its descendants a love for fried food and absurdly sized pumpkins, but it contains the kernel of what all of these large fall festivals we enjoy now originally meant.  It’s about the abundance of the harvest, celebrating the work by farmers it takes to bring that abundance to market, and the work by housewives and domestic workers it takes to preserve it. And it was so much fun!

. If you’re marking this season with little ones (or even if you aren’t), may I suggest Miss Maple’s Seeds, and A Seed is Sleepy?  I selected

IMG_5931 both of these as part of my Neighborhood Explorers book collection.  Both books show the seed as both mysterious and beautiful for the hidden life inside, and might get you and your children collecting nuts and pods on your walks, whether to admire or to plant.  They have the kind of quiet wonder that I love in children’s books.  And for the seed lover in your life, I also love the exuberant color of the More & Co. Magic Seed crewneck.  

. At this time of year I can’t resist Simon and Garfunkel. They were young men obsessed with aging, and their own mortality. I can’t think of a better musical foil for the Persephone story. Try a live album – 1967 or 1969 are both on Spotify. It gives a sense of the men and how they grew.

. This is a time of year when I spend much of my time in the kitchen. The slow but satisfying process of making the season’s abundance last. And there’s the chilly nights when the warmth from a baking oven seems just the thing. A Rosh Hashanah tradition is honey cake, and I love this one, from Smitten Kitchen. Sometimes I mince in some apples, and I always add about 1/3 cup of sesame seeds.  In the market for a new apron for all those cooking projects?  When I put on my Fog Linen Square Cross Apron, I somehow feel like myself.

IMG_5913. There’s indoor labor – weaving, cooking – and the outdoor labors of harvesting, raking leaves. In autumn that divide begins to feel more important. Your boots are wet from chilly rain. You want to keep the back door closed against the cold. Marking the threshold between home and outside is a sign of autumn. Put a wreath on your front door. And put a Vermont Wooden Doormat outside.

. After the High Holidays begins Sukkot, a harvest celebration based on the practices of building a sukkah, a three sided booth with a natural material for a roof, through which you must be able to see the sky.  This holiday invites people to share an intimate space outside, under the stars.  I’ve been smitten with this holiday for years, though I’ve never had much occasion to celebrate it in the kind of intimate way I’ve heard stories of from others. This article about the food traditions of the holiday is a great introduction  – meals are taken outside, in the sukkah, with friends and neighbors. The last lingering outdoors, the sharing of the plenty of the season.

. So, last week was the Hunter’s Moon, the full moon the Native Americans knew to represent the time when the animals were fattest and the lean months were coming.  In the American calendar and the New England climate, it begins a kind of celebratory season, from harvest festivals to celebrations of death and tradition to “the holidays” – that long stretch between thanksgiving and new years.

So here’s my question to leave you with – the question I’m

IMG_5906IMG_5928trying to answer for myself, and one that I discuss with many friends lately.  How do we make space for both tradition/celebration AND the mindfulness of everyday tasks, as we enter this celebratory period?  What does sharing your bounty mean to you?

Neighborhood Explorers

For the past monIMG_4982th or two I’ve been working on curating a shelf for the Uni Project‘s launch in Boston.  The Uni is a mobile reading   room – think of it as a learning institution for public space – that was started by Leslie and Sam Davol in New York in 2012.  The way Leslie explained it to me when they first began was that she hoped to bring the Uni to places where there was a story already unfolding; that bringing books and learning to public spaces would help communities to see their neighborhoods — and themselves — in a new way.  So the Uni popped up in Corona Plaza with the Queens Museum of Art, which has community engagement at the heart of its mission.  The Uni went to Play Streets all over the city, where community groups had invited them to bring books and learning to street level.  In Brooklyn, the Uni partnered with the public library to bring lending books outside the library walls, so that kids and families could make reading part of their daytime, playtime activities.  And now, there’s a massive Uni cube on Governor’s Island, and Unis run by other organizations in places as far away as Almaty, Kazakhstan.  This spring, the Uni was named one of the winners of Boston’s Public Space Invitational, which will bring it to Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway for families, tourists, and summer picnickers.  Here are some photos of the Uni’s Boston launch!

I love the Uni.  Not just because I had some small role in its inception, but because I think this is a pop-up project that gets it.  That it’s not enough to put snazzy things at street level.  You need for those things to make sense as part of a community’s internal understanding of itself; you need for your snazzy things to be facilitated and meaningful.  Leslie and Sam don’t just put a Uni on the street and let people have at it, they staff it with volunteer librarians, and they staff it themselves.  I once watched Sam mesmerize a group of small children with a zoetrope.  Giving people your time, your energy, showing them that you care about your project, and about their neighborhood, invites them to care too.

So when I had the opportunity to show that I care about the Uni, I jumped at the chance.  Inspired by my favorite baby gift book, Journey by Aaron Becker, I decided to collect a set of books that would inspire kids and adults to go on little adventures in their everyday lives.

From her bedroom to an entirely new world (Aaron Becker’s Journey).

The books for adults were motivated by the idea that we explore best when we learn about something and then go seek out examples of it.  Like that thing when you learn a new word, and suddenly you start noticing it everywhere.  So I chose books like Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast (especially important if you are planning to do any tree ID in winter!) and The Field Guide to Typography: Type Faces in the Urban Landscape.  I also included books with maps and photos, particularly of Boston and how it’s changed over time; another way that adults explore is by comparing the pictures in their mind with the landscape in front of them.  I am a big fan of encouraging this kind of historical imagination because I think it plays a strong role in imagining what might be possible in a place.  And it reminds us that our environments are made, and remade, and can be made better – whatever that means to us.IMG_4913

I used post-its to guide readers towards the interesting questions I thought the particular book posed. This book, Lost Boston, is about Boston buildings and landmarks that no longer exist.

The kids’ books were even more fun, though.  Kids’ books are amazing!  If you are an adult, I urge you to spend time in your library or bookstore’s kid section next time you visit.  No one will think you’re weird, and you will be delighted by their elegantly spare text, their imaginative, lively illustrations, and their poignantly universal themes.  And all that silliness.  If you don’t believe me, trust Maria Popova.  The kids’ books in my Neighborhood Explorers collection are about journeys, big and small, and about learning about nature in cities.  I like the idea of reminding families that there’s non-human nature all around them, a whole ecology that they’re a part of, even right in downtown Boston.explorers title-01

As I chose the books, I thought about the five essential skills of a neighborhood explorer: attention, patience, curiosity, dwelling, and wonder.

attention

In Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? , a pair of children wonder why the robin in their backyard makes no sound.  Each page contains a watercolor illustration of a different bird — birds that would be recognizable in any urban backyard – and an imaginative translation of the sounds that the birds make.  At the end of the book, the robin’s egg hatches, and the children understand why the bird had been quiet for so long.  On the last page is a small-text, to-be-read-by-older-people Q&A with the robin about its nesting habits.  I like this book because of its simplicity and directness, and the way its little drawings and songs inspire me better than any field guide to pay attention to the birds I see and hear everyday.  I also like the book’s suggestion to make up your own words to a bird’s song!

http://hmhyoungreadersblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/haveyouheard1.jpg

Woodpecker and starling sing their songs.

patience

A relative of attention, patience is about letting meaning or discoveries come to you.  This would seem like a counterintuitive thing for exploration, which we picture as an act of boldness and forward motion.  But consider the hunter. She must be still for long durations of time before the skittish deer is willing to show himself (descriptions of Inuit hunters on ice flows, where everything is white, conjure a sense of time totally separate from ours, in which stillness extends for hours as hunters wait for a telltale motion, twisting their focus across massive expanses of undifferentiated distance and terrain).  Similarly, the gardener must wait patiently for seeds to germinate, hidden underground.  This is the metaphor at work in Miss Maple’s Seeds, a totally enchanting book about a tiny woman who lives in a tree, and keeps orphaned seeds through the winter and teaches them to grow.  There is so much quiet beauty in this book, and the care and patience of Miss Maple reminds us of the affections of the archetypal grandmother of our imaginations.  There’s also a spread of carefully watercolored seeds listed by name; maybe this will inspire you or your family to plant some seeds of your own, and whisper encouragement as you wait for them to grow.

Miss Maple reads stories to her seeds as they sleep.

Miss Maple sets her seeds afloat; it’s time for them to find their own place to grow.

curiosity

I loved reading The Adventures of Beekle, an Unimaginary Friend.  In this book, Beekle, an imaginary friend who hasn’t been imagined by anyone yet, decides to leave his imaginary world and try to find a human to be his friend.  He lands in a Real World city and tries to figure out how to navigate it (he only comes up to everyone’s ankles!).  Eventually he finds a friend, and they learn to play together.  At the heart of this book, like several others in the collection (Journey, Peggy: the story of a brave chicken on a big adventure, and The Lost (and Found) Balloon), is an adventure that ends up, in the fashion of Wizard of Oz, showing the explorer that they can bring their curiosity to their own backyards.  Here I Am is a non-fiction version of this adventure story, about a child who immigrates to an urban neighborhood and uses her imagination to navigate this strange new environment.   These books, with their brave protagonists in a scary, big world, reassure their readers that they can find their own way, too: those illustrations of stomping, fast moving, commuting grownup feet are clearly a kids’-eye-view, even if they’re presented through the perspective of an imaginary friend, or a chicken.  Not about coming of age, these books are rather like Alice and Wonderland or a fairy tale, in which a child’s unique perspective allows them to navigate a confusing adult world with integrity, curiosity, and whimsy.  They also remind me of Maria Tatar‘s trope of the bored child (Alice, or Max from Where the Wild Things Are, for example) who finds her way out of despondency by conjuring the outrageous, the frightening, or the simply remarkable.  Curiosity brings an adventurer into a disorienting and new place, into contact with new and unusual people; this is why adventures are both exciting and scary.  But in these stories, curiosity eventually brings you home, just as Beekle finally finds the friend he was looking for.

Beekle’s tiny, brightly colored boat sails into the port of the Real World.

dwelling

Books like Beekle reveal how adventuring and dwelling are really part of the same process: the process of getting to know a place so that it is always familiar and unfamiliar, and the process of getting to know yourself and what you’re capable of.  It’s unfamiliar because you can always discover something new; it’s familiar because you’ve invested the time, patience, and attention to get to know it so well. And the true value of any adventure is the fresh eyes with which you’re able to see the place you started in. So I like the idea of reading a book about a curious adventurer alongside This is Our House, a lovely, simple little book about a child who is the third generation to live in her family’s home.  Her grandparents were immigrants; he adventure isn’t the child’s, it’s the family’s.  And the reward of this kind of multigenerational adventure is to be rooted: to know one tree, one stoop, and one neighborhood, so that it feels truly your own.

Home and family are at the center of This is Our House, about a different kind of journey.

wonder

Few books have communicated wonder to me like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day.  This one is a classic but I don’t remember it from my childhood, perhaps because I grew up in Oakland, California, where the sudden, miraculous appearance of snow is not part of growing up.  And that’s all this book is about.  How a blanket of white can transform the place that you see everyday into a place of magic, joy, and play.  This is something that persists even for adults; now that I live in Massachusetts, I know the delicious feeling of weekend blizzards when, after the weather clears, everyone seems to go outside and play, and talk to each other on the street.  Building snowmen, making snow angels, throwing snowballs.  In these moments, time seems to suspend and stop.  This is, I think, what wonder is.  Wonder isn’t just about curiosity or enjoyment, it’s about feeling a sense of magic, of otherness, of separation from your daily life.  Wonder is something that children bring as part of their orientation to the world; my own childhood was full of of digging for leprechaun gold and writing neighborhood newspapers and investigating local mysteries (yes, one of my favorite books was Harriet the Spy, a great Neighborhood Explorer for the older set).  The Snowy Day captures that simple but profound experience, and hopefully will encourage children and adults alike to seek little ways to put time on hold and feel some magic.

How to be an explorer.

The last part of this project is the one I’m most proud of.  My sister and I designed (she illustrated!) The Young Adventurer’s Guide to Exploring Your Neighborhood.  Right now, the project exists as two postcards that are part of the Uni collection.  The back of the postcard has space for kids or adults to share their own neighborhood observations, and send them to someone they love (or to a stranger, like this incredible project).  The idea was to create spaces during your day for attention, patience, curiosity and wonder, to inspire opportunities for the kind of dwelling and adventuring that the characters in these stories do.  They’re also an encouragement for families to do this kind of adventuring together, with children teaching adults what it means to bring wonder, curiosity, attention, and patience into our world.

If you’re a grownup in NYC, take advantage of Elastic City‘s walks, which inspired this project!

YOUNG ADVENTURERS 2 color-01

young adventurers color-01

Quilts and Color at the Boston MFA

You still have a couple weeks to get to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the temporary exhibit, Quilts and Color.  It’s a total knockout, but not necessarily for the reasons why the MFA thinks it is.  Here’s how the museum describes the show:

“Quilts and Color” celebrates the vibrant color palette and inventive design seen in the acclaimed Pilgrim/Roy Quilt Collection. The exhibition features nearly 60 distinctive quilts from the renowned collection and is the first to explore how, over five decades, trained artists Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy searched out and collected quilts with bold, eye-popping designs that echoed the work of mid-20th century Abstract Expressionist and Op Artists.

“Quilts and Color,” as this summary describes, focuses on the quilt collection of a pair of artists, whose interest in color theory and Modern art led them to collect unappreciated and undervalued examples of mostly 19th century handmade American quilts, quilts with “eye-popping designs.”  This tight focus to the show led to two unusual and distinctive curatorial choices.  First: the quilts are hung in the exhibition language of Modern art.  IMG_4441 Here’s a photo of the first gallery — the walls are black, causing the colors of the quilt to pop from the wall.  There’s a railing where the text is installed; you’re kept far away from the quilt, which is presented as a purely visual object.  Each gallery in the exhibition focuses on a concept and color theory, which is exemplified by a painting from the MFA’s collection (colorfield, op-art, minimalist, etc), highlighting the conceptual parallel being drawn between the quilts and this genre of art.

The second outcome of this curatorial focus is the way in which the exhibition interprets the process of collecting, and how private collectors, with their personal taste and obsessions, craft what ends up at museums.  And, by extension, how we see, and what we look at.  This exhibition had the feeling, in moments, of an in-depth investigation of provenance, and why anyone — collector, visitor, or scholar — should care about it.  Have you seen other quilts hung like this in a museum?  Have you ever seen a quilt on a wall at an art museum?  The reason why you see them here is because of the particular mission of the collectors and the closeness with which the curators worked with their collection.

Which brings me to the more important point about this exhibition.  What happens in this show is that a folk art with a long tradition — American quilting — is identified as, and with, fine art.  By virtue of its institutional context, the hanging decisions I described above, and the way the pieces are interpreted in terms of their formal and conceptual characteristics, rather than their technical, personal, or historical ones. They were presented, in other words, as visual art, rather than material culture.

That these were quilts made by people, for use, passed down maybe as family heirlooms, objects for warmth, for protection, objects that brought a little color into a quiet, maybe even dull life — was totally elided from the stories of these quilts. The women who made them hovered like clouds of breath in the air of the galleries.  I imagined their quiet conversation, their squinting, their sore and muscular fingertips.  I wondered whether they had a favorite thimble, whether this was their first quilt or their 20th.  What compelled these women to make such bold color decisions?  And what did the other members of their community think of them, these women and their colorfield quilts?  Not even the virtuosic needlework — hard to see in the dark lighting and at a distance that discourages tactile experience — gets attention from the formal interpretation.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  On the left quilt below, you can see a stain on the fabric, an indication of the piece’s former life as a household object.  I love this small moment of use.  On the right is some of the most impressive needlework in the show.

IMG_4442IMG_4443The approach to this exhibition could be seen as an “elevation” of the quilt, from craft to artform.  And I certainly loved the bold simplicity of the galleries, the contained, specific story, and the information about color theory that I learned along the way.  It is unconventional thinking to say the least that hangs Op Art next to Quaker quilts, which speaks to the unique eye of these singular collectors.  But I’m not sure I believe that we need quilts to be juxtaposed with Modern art in order for us to see that they are Art, that they are meaningful, beautiful, or worthy of our aesthetic consideration.  And what I am sure of is that focusing on the collectors rather than the makers of these works in fact separates the quilts from a Jackson Pollock or a Barnett Newman, which are of course called by name for their makers, and not for which savvy buyer purchased them at which gallery show in New York.

Certainly, one of the beauties of an exhibition is that the visitor can receive the narrative of the curators while also being invited to look at the objects themselves, and have their own meaningful experiences with them as physical entities.  And in this case, the absence of many specific backstories about the quilts themselves left me free to imagine them, which was certainly more gratifying than something like the “Mrs. So-and-so learned needlework from her mother and worked in the X style that was inherited from X tradition” that one might see in a more traditional folk art context.

Perhaps the lesson here is that beautiful, well-used objects can speak for themselves.  These quilts vibrated with a their rich histories as well as their bold colors.  I wish their makers had been able to speak, too.

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Cultivating: Midsummer

I’ve been thinking this summer about nostalgia.  This is the season for remembering first kisses (mine: 17 years old, on a balcony in San Sebastian, Spain, sometime in mid July, during a rainstorm), family camping trips, and the long days of daydreaming of past summers (that’s me in the hat, as a young teen, at left.  This picture gives me that odd feeling of not knowing where we are in this picture, and not remembering the moment at all).  IMG_4620If you have kids, it’s the time when they make memories like this for themselves.  I wonder what it’s like to watch them do that, to see echoes of your former self in them and experience the simultaneity of memory and experience.  This is the tinge of sadness that summer brings – knowing that it comes to an end, knowing that we’re getting older, that the year will soon get colder again.  The hopefulness of spring and the resilience of fall and winter lie on either side of us, and at the height of summer we balance in between them. And so we revel in it while we can, and let nostalgia make it even sweeter.

Nostalgia comes from the Greek word for home.  We use it, often derisively, to describe wistfulness for a lost past.  But it really describes something we all experience as we get older: that we will always be searching for the feeling of belonging, of being at home.

I’m keeping Pinterest boards for my finds and recommendations too.

Here are some things that I’ve been doing, reading, and listening to this Midsummer.  The Solstice was June 21, but the heat of July and early August to me are the height of the season.  Today (July 12th) is the summer’s full moon.  Folk traditions call it the full buck moon – the time of the year when deer who have shed their antlers begin regrowing them.

You’ll notice: I’m experimenting with formatting on this post!

IMG_4714. Scandinavian tradition is for the Midsummer table to be covered in flowers, and to eat strawberries!  I’m inspired by Scandinavian traditions because they are very connected to the seasons, even today,  and translate well to my climate and environment in New England.  So my solstice dinner table featured edible nasturtiums and mustard flowers, and a strawberry shortcake made with woodruff infused cream (an amazingly sweet herb I first tasted in Sweden but which in fact grows in front yards all over my neighborhood!).

 

. IMG_4701On the Solstice my husband and I paid a visit to Eva Sommaripa’s farm/garden.  We expected an hour or two of picking greens for her and for ourselves before heading to the beach nearby.  But when we arrived, she asked us, “Do you want to pick rose petals?”  Soon enough we were pulling on canvas Carhartts and thick socks, and for the next few hours we wrestled and stomped our way through thick rose brambles, sometimes so high we couldn’t see over them, to pick gallons and gallons of wild rose petals.  I hope the rose water I made is worth the arms covered in scratches and bug bites!   Eva’s been living on her land since 1972 and has a profoundly seasonal way of living, and it doesn’t feel contrived or fad-ish, but rather resilient and downright Yankee.  Chef, cookbook author and friend (and teenage idol!) of mine Didi Emmons documented a year at Eva’s farm in her really wonderful book, Wild Flavors.  

. My poetry pick this summer is The Wild Field by Rita Gabis.  I picked it up used; it was published in 1994.

From “Wild Roses”

“I’ve hardly loved at all. / I’ve gathered petals from the dark road, / held bone-white pieces of shell to my mouth / to taste the whiteness. / I’ve taken a man in the middle of the day, / how my hips bruised him, / like the beach plum softened by the long days, / the color deepening on the stem / after the roses are gone.”

The collection is filled with the sense of a New England summer, complete with stone walls – you can hear the buzzing of cicadas and the crash of the ocean throughout the poems.  It’s also filled with the twin sensation of fullness and loss, ripeness and aging, youth’s lust for and fear of the future.  Most of the poems begin with a meditation on the visceral experience of the natural environment and then expand, like a mind associatively wandering, towards reflection on those crucial concerns of growing up, family (becoming a mother, watching a gradmother aging), and sex.

I keep a book of poetry next to my seat at the dining room table.  Read “Fireflies” from The Wild Field on my reviews blog.

. While we’re on the subject of flower picking, this summer I’ve been obsessed with linden trees, which like woodruff grow all over my neighborhood and I never noticed, even though linden (sometimes called lime, tilia, or tilleuil in French) is my favorite scent, tea, and on and on.  Now I have a little crop of way-more-fragrant-than-store-bought dried linden flowers ready for my evening tea needs. So:

while leaves are out, learn to identify the trees you see everyday!

You can use a field guide, an app like LeafSnap, or just lots of pictures and specimens and Google searching (my preferred method, most of the time).  Used book stores are great sources: I picked up my new favorite at Lorem Ipsum.

. All of this flower gathering (and strawberry picking) has gotten me thinking about the beautiful, traditional Nantucket baskets made by Taylor Cullen of Small Town Girl.

. IMG_4682Another thing I learned in Sweden was that everything always feels warmer and more hospitable when served in a turned wood bowl.  Now I have a little collection: my favorite is this delicate, almost hovering bowl from Brian Weir of Dartmouth, MA (which I got in New Bedford).  And of course, Peterman’s spalted maple bowls from Gill, MA.  When my husband and I passed Peterman’s bowls on Route 2, he screeched the car to a halt and u-turned straight into the parking lot.  Oiling the unfinished bowls is key, I’ve learned.  But I’ve also learned that mineral oil is (as the name ought to have indicated to me) a petroleum processing byproduct.  So, next time I want to grease up my woodens, I’ll try Heidi Swanson’s coconut method (look at her gorgeous spoons!).

Japanese wabi-sabi principles would say that in summer, you should be choosing cool materials for bowls and vases – like glass or delicate porcelain – rather than warm stoneware and wood.

. The only thing I have that fits the bill is a nearly translucent little cup by Bryan Hopkins, so I stick to glass pitchers like this one.  

. I spent a week in Hudson, New York at Oral History Summer School, a magical place which I and my fellow participants often refer to as “summer camp.”  I took this as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with friendship bracelets. With each knot I feel a little bit of time travel, remembering the quick, deep friendships and the freedom that came with the hot days of childhood summer camp.  And they’re beautiful!  But note: monochrome patterns are tougher than they look.

. Whether I’m off to summer camp, Tanglewood, or the beach, I bring two Kara Weaves towels.  They’re good for blankets, towels, scarves…

. Give a listen to Glenn Gould’s “The Latecomers,” a 1969 radio documentary about the declining traditional life in Newfoundland around the time of resettlement.  It’s filled with the sounds of the sea and the feeling of lost home.  It’s about an hour long; listen on headphones!

. Annie Dillard has been one of my favorite writers for many years; her short novel The Maytrees, perfect for a weekend getaway, is set on Cape Cod.  There’s such a sense of place — the kind of wild, desolate beauty of the Atlantic coastline, a kind of salt crust and rotted wood feeling.  It’s about a marriage – the romance and the loss – and I can’t recommend it enough for a quick but meaningful summer read.

I picked these up on the beach in Wells, Maine, last week.  I gave my self a rule: only rocks with a single stripe.  I love the one with the circle at its corner!

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. I’ve been having a lot of fun rock collecting this summer, and it’s being made more fun by the excellent-but-ponderous summer reading I’m doing: Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee. I’ve always wanted a good geology book, and now I’ve got one that will keep me busy for a long time.  What’s amazing about geology is that it is so deeply human, so existentially challenging to think in deep time, that thinking about rocks becomes an exercise in thinking about what it means to be on this earth, now, with the sun on the backs of our necks and our eyes peeled to the ground, waiting for the next rock to pick up. I’ll post a review when I’m done.

 

 

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Long review: Annette Kolodny, “In Search of First Contact”

On November 13, 1972, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran an article with the headline, “Those Famed Rune Stones, Real – Or Carved By Hippy?” Next to the headline is a photograph of a young white man in starched dress shirt and tie, a watch peeking out from his left sleeve, and a pointer in his hand. He is pointing towards a photo of a rock in the foreground, and the caption informs the reader that this Dr. Bruce Borque, the research associate for archaeology at the Maine Museum. He’s showing readers the famed Spirit Pond rune stones of Maine, which had been “discovered” a year earlier, only to have recently been ruled a fake by one of the world’s foremost rune stone experts. This was after the Maine State Museum had paid $4,500 for the stones to enter their permanent collection.The stones had certainly caused a great “hullaballoo,” with “amateur and not-so-amateur archaeologists” showing great enthusiasm for the discovery when it as made, and some believers still remaining after runic scholars determined they were fake. “An amateur archaeologist,” for example, “says that any Rune Stones have been found on the Maine coast.” The reporter concludes: the “great Rune Stone mystery…[still] leaves a few unanswered questions.”[1]

Annette Kolodny, in her book In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (2012), picks up where this newspaper article leaves off. “Today,” she writes, “the Spirit Pond stones are housed in the Maine State Museum in Augusta and, when exhibited, are clearly labeled as fake. Nonetheless, as late as the 1990s, at least one self-taught runologist…was publishing articles claiming to have deciphered [it]…by identifying its medieval Norwegian origins” (14).

The story of the Spirit Pond stones is Kolodny’s entry point into a broad set of questions about the persistent thrum in American culture of a medieval Nordic foundation myth. She focuses on a series of poems, histories, and antiquarian publications from the 19th century, particularly New England, tracing not only the influences of the myth of the Norse, but also the way this myth conflicted with and resisted the founding myth of Christopher Columbus. Why has the potential of a Viking discovery been so exciting for some Americans? Why has the myth of this discovery endured, and what is the possibility that it might be based in some reality? And what, furthermore, still holds the American imagination about the Vikings today?

To this project she also brings a second agenda: to use the potential of a Viking landing on North America, sometime around 1000CE, to complicate the very notion of “discovery.” A scholar of Early American history, Kolodny challenges the idea of “first contact,” reading two very unorthodox texts as her evidence. The first, the two Icelandic Sagas that chronicled Viking landings on “Vinland,” which was located somewhere in North America. Kolodny argues these Sagas ought to be read not only as Scandinavian literature but also as Early American literature, which subverts the Columbus-and-the-Pilgrims story so prevalent in American history and presents an image of recurring contact and intersection between natives and visitors from the East, long before colonization took place. Such visitors included the Norse, but also Basque fishermen who followed the rich cod grounds west as early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The second, Native American stories about “contact” between their ancestors and men from the East, collected from the 19th century – essentially simultaneously to the Viking craze – through the present. These stories also pointed to recurring contact between Natives and Eastern visitors, some of whom may have been Norse.

The connective tissue between these two projects is the question of the location of Vinland. In part, she hopes to read the Norse and Native American texts together in order to corroborate a specific location for the settlement made and returned to by Icelanders between the years of 1000 and 1300, for harvesting wood and other natural resources, and exploring a new coastline. Kolodny begins and ends the book with ethnography to complement her detailed textual readings, visiting the archaeological dig site of L’Anse aux Meadows, in northern Newfoundland, and building trust and rapport with many Native Americans in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine, where Indians might, she hoped, lead her to a better understanding of Norse settlement. This, it turns out, is not possible: she can make only inferences and imaginations. And so this is a book about myth.

The dual mandate of this project makes for a reading that feels somewhat unsettled. The two narratives, about the 19th century craze for Vikingalia, and about her own attempts to establish “first contact” through textual interpretation and interviews that might supplement the archaeological record, don’t completely lie flat together. But she does accomplish her stated goal: to complicate the picture of what “contact” means, to read it from stories from either side of the Atlantic, and to understand why we need stories about contact in the first place.

This book contributes to the tradition in American studies of studying myths of origin and the relationship between history and literature that Americans have invoked in order to “invent traditions(Hobsbawm 1983). The American vogue for such endeavors is often seen to follow a European passion in the early 19th century for historical romances such as Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish tales or Robert Burns’s poems, written in dialect, or the Grimm’s collections of traditional German folktales. Such projects are fundamentally nationalist, and in America they took on a unique urgency. Not only did American mythmakers need to fashion a shared identity out of story and legend, they also needed to assert their right to the land where they were building that nation. The way to do this was to find ancient origins for their people in the landscape. Kolodny quotes “politician and orator Rufus Choate,” who told listeners in Salem, Massachusetts in 1833 that American writers ought to give “’to the natural scenery of the New World, and to the celebrated personages and grand incidents of its early annals, the same kind and degree of interest which Scott has given to the Highlands,’” (p. 104).

Kolodny also points to the fact that this was a uniquely New England project – though northern Midwesterners of Scandinavian origin got involved later, as a way to claim their distinctness from other European immigrant groups. She describes enthusiasts combing maps and hunting through landscapes of Massachusetts – which many at that time believed to have been Vinland — to find traces of a noble Viking past that might re-establish the region as a cultural center for the westward growing nation. Recentering national identity on New England would also provide more agency for abolitionist claims to right, as new states were admitted to the union and the Mason-Dixon line strained like a tearing seam. These men lived in a landscape of hidden signs and mystic clues – they read the Sagas like an incantation of nobility and relevance. The antiquarian who began this vogue was “Danish philologist” Carl Christian Rafn, who “seemed to provide exactly what was needed, including the ruins” (105). Publishing English translations of the Vinland sagas and subsequently sparking a whole self-referential literary genre that made romance out of New England sites like Dighton Rock in Fall River, MA, and the stone tower in Newport, RI. Through these stories and newly “discovered” landmarks, the tellers of these pre-Columbian discovery tales were able to construct America as a “Nordic” land, ancient and – perhaps most importantly – white. Articulating a noble national heritage founded by “freedom loving” Vikings also became a way to argue for “”cessation of immigration to save America for Nordic humanity,’” (255).

The myth of origin and the racializing of America’s noble inheritance is an American project. But the only real evidence that exists of Viking landing – the settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows, which is now thought not to have been Vinland but instead a trading outpost – is in Canada. It makes sense, given the craze for all things Viking in New England and the project of American studies to investigate such myths – and Kolodny’s own position in the field of Early American literature – for this book to focus on the culture south of the St. Lawrence River. But it left me wondering: what might Canadian sources bring to bear on this discussion? The Native American sources span across the Algonquian speaking region; what of white Canadian sources? Canadian nationalism was also a powerful force in the 19th century, including linguistic conflicts between Franco and British Canadian communities and the question of inclusion of the Maritimes into the new nation of Canada. We could imagine that stories of Vikings – sometimes invoked as “proto-Brits” without the nasty French influences – might have been useful for some Anglophone Canadian nationalists. We could imagine that legends of Viking settlement might have been a way to make a case for the inclusion or exclusion of the Maritime region. So, was there such a tradition in Canada in this period? Either a yes or no answer to this question would have been very productive for Kolodny’s thesis.

In fact, this book could have benefited from a more intensively geographic analysis in general. The central preoccupation about the location of Vinland is as much material as it is mythic, hinging on the search for artifacts and also for Kolodny’s environmental reading of the Sagas. Where might Vikings have encountered wild grapes growing in the warming climate of the Dark Ages? she asks. What landscape features correspond to the places described in the Sagas, such as the place called “Hope,” to the south of Vinland where “ ‘a river…flowed down into a lake and from the lake into the sea…[with] extensive sand-bars outside the river mouth…where they sailed into the estuary’”? (85). Our 19th century interlocutors translated such questions about the Sagas into deep convictions about their familiar landscapes’ correspondence to the sites settled by Vikings. John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, “unfolded a reverie in which the poet first hears and then sees an ancient Norse vessel gliding up “the Merrimac River…a landscape he both knew and loved” having grown up on a farm in the river valley (168). Whittier had been inspired by a stone found in the valley, “following the local habit of identifying any odd and seemingly old artifact as Norse” (168). Whittier’s landscape intervention was poetic; Eben Horsford, an amateur archaeologist from Cambridge, had argued for his beloved Charles River’s role in the Viking discovery with a plaque along the River declaring it the site of Vinland, as well as “the construction of a vaguely Norman-looking thirty-foot stone tower, ten feet in diameter” (233). Using the visual and built language of historic preservation, Horsford asserted the legitimacy of his – and Cambridge’s – claim to Nordic patrimony.

Kolodny misses the opportunity to think spatially in the way her 19th century counterparts did. There are no maps in the text, for example, whether early European, Native American, or modern American. Though it’s clear the Sagas are far too vague to offer up clear navigational directions to Vinland – supporting Kolodny’s thesis that Vinland was never seen as colony, nor the Sagas as instructions – had Kolodny presented alternative interpretations of the Icelander’s route, she would have provided a more robust critique of the 19th century mythmaking, using the language of the enthusiasts she studies. In other words, she never explores the extent to which the literary and the cartographic landscapes intersect; when issues of landscape, discovery, and the claiming of territory are at issue, a map can be a powerful tool. Moreover, aside from her initial “autobiography of the book,” she never really puts her reader into the physical landscape that she is exploring and describing. How to reconcile present landscapes with historical ones, and how to study historical landscapes at all, is a question that vexes environmental historians, nudging them towards adjacent scientific fields like ecology and geology. In Changes in the Land (another study of Native-European contact in New England), William Cronon reads the landscape as his archive, incorporating the ecological record with documents like maps and property deeds in order to understand how land itself operated in the social and cultural life of Indians and Puritans in New England’s early years of settlement. Kolodny doesn’t engage with this tradition or set of methodologies. Her Vinland remains an imaginary landscape, and never materializes into something tangible and readable.

This is because Kolodny is interested in stories. In Search of First Contact in fact is not only about the “Anglo-American anxiety of discovery,” but about her own – and, perhaps, her field’s – anxiety about writing. More specifically, this book presents Kolodny’s own anxiety about how to expand the range of stories we can tell about history when the archival record is sparse, and oral sources are the only potential information we have.Both the Sagas and the Native stories she reads later in the book are oral sources, transformed and captured in written text centuries after their first tellings. But Kolodny, as a literary scholar, must read them as “texts,” and she struggles with doing so.   She describes how “in traditional Mi’kmaq fashion, the purpose of every story was not to chronicle each and every specific event – in the way Euro-Americans write history – but rather to distill the connections between and the shared meanings of these events” (292). Similarly, the different Saga texts conflate and confuse and dramatize for the purpose of storytelling, rather than the accurate communication of history. The mistake of the 19th century Viking-philes, Kolodny argues, is misinterpreting these texts as history, when they are stories.

The effort of this book essentially then is to attempt to fashion a narrative from multiple narratives, in the way Native storytellers do, making meaning and distilling significance from a number of interwoven but distinct events. I think Kolodny’s text represents her own – and perhaps a more epistemological – anxiety about doing so. In her efforts at “close reading” for historical meaning, she struggles against her desire for positivist, historically driven interpretation. She reads, for example, the symbols on a rock carved by Native shaman-historians (Dighton Rock, which the 19th century Norse enthusiasts though was incontrovertible evidence of rune carving in Massachusetts, has subsequently been thought to be made by Native hands, perhaps added to later by Portuguese sailors). “The images [on the rock] were thus reservoirs of potency that could be called upon again and again. The ships thereby became the shamans, for rituals and for his own spirit-journeys. And the ships forever also became his peoples’ – as a reminder of any stories associated with them” (269). Isn’t this what the 19th century Americans were attempting to do with their poetry – to claim the imagic potency of those boats from across the Atlantic for their own spirit-journeys? And, how does Kolodny know that that is what the rune stones were meant to do? It is one thing to interpret a literary text in this way, for connotation and hidden meanings, in the tradition of “close reading.” She does this skillfully when she reads poetry. But when confronted with a text from a different compositional tradition, are the tools of the contemporary literary scholarship sufficient? Can we look for “truth” in a text that is so filled with magic, and imagination, written not by one voice but collected from many? And when, moreover, does an artifact do the same thing as fiction – serve as a point of storytelling and imagination, rather than as tangible evidence?

These questions are only implicit in Kolodny’s text, and I would like to have seen her struggle with them a bit more. I wondered by the end if she might see the 19th century characters, both poets and antiquarians, as foils for herself, reading artifacts, texts, and landscapes through their vision of the America they wanted to live in. In her conclusion, “History Lessons,” (perhaps more aptly: literary lessons), she places herself within another tradition, a Native tradition of cultural critique that argues that “’America must absolve herself of the historic guilt towards her [indigenous] predecessors and heal the split in her soul’” (Paula Gunn Alen, a.q. on p. 330). Her method, reading European and Native texts together, is an attempt to heal that split with her work. Bringing Native voices into stories of “first contact,” in fact using them to refute that there was a “first” contact at all, is her gesture towards absolution, of understanding. Of building an American literature (and, by extension an American people) that is based in the landscape of America, and not a particular racial or historical category. The Norse, the Natives, the New Englanders – their literature is American because it is about American soil, whether real or imagined.

It is hard to see much difference between this approach and that of Longfellow or Rafn, who read landscape with literary texts to envision an America more dignified, more whole, and more real than the place where they lived. This is not a criticism of Kolodny. Far from it. That is what myths are for.

 

[1] Lloyd Ferriss, “Those Famed Rune Stones, Real – Or Carved By Hippy?” Maine Sunday Telegram. November 12, 1972. p. 13A.

Review: The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare (2013)

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I just finished reading The Sea Inside, and my review is up on Goodreads.  If you’d like to follow my reading and review projects specifically, check out the dedicated Tumblr I’ve set up for just that purpose.  And let me know if the format is working for you…it’s an experiment.